Lesson Plans

How to Describe Places to Tell Under-Reported Stories: From Drafting to Editing

Jean-Pierre Muzinga, a forest technician, measures the trunk of an Afrormosia in the Yangambi Biosphere Reserve. Image by Sarah Waiswa. Democratic Republic of Congo, 2019.

Jean-Pierre Muzinga, a forest technician, measures the trunk of an Afrormosia in the Yangambi Biosphere Reserve. Image by Sarah Waiswa. Democratic Republic of Congo, 2019.

Campo Alegre is the largest mining area in Canaima National Park, located in the Gran Sabana, in the park’s eastern sector, in southeastern Venezuela. Image by Fabiola Ferrero. Venezuela, 2020.

Campo Alegre is the largest mining area in Canaima National Park, located in the Gran Sabana, in the park’s eastern sector, in southeastern Venezuela. Image by Fabiola Ferrero. Venezuela, 2020.

Tyra Johnson, who is 31 weeks pregnant, with her children Madison Hundley (left), 4, and Meegale Hundley, 5. Image by Colter Peterson / Post-Dispatch. United States, 2020.

Tyra Johnson, who is 31 weeks pregnant, with her children Madison Hundley (left), 4, and Meegale Hundley, 5. Image by Colter Peterson / Post-Dispatch. United States, 2020.

A woman looks out from an immigration truck transporting her to detention following a raid in Petaling Jaya, Kuala Lumpur on May 20. Image by Hasnoor Hussain. Malaysia, 2020.

A woman looks out from an immigration truck transporting her to detention following a raid in Petaling Jaya, Kuala Lumpur on May 20. Image by Hasnoor Hussain. Malaysia, 2020.

55-year old Ramsingh Nagvanshi, a Dalit farmer, at his farm. His family has cultivated the land for generations, but has no land title because it falls under orange areas. Image by Nihar Gokhale. India, undated.

55-year old Ramsingh Nagvanshi, a Dalit farmer, at his farm. His family has cultivated the land for generations, but has no land title because it falls under orange areas. Image by Nihar Gokhale. India, undated.

Israel, a 30-year-old Nigerian refugee poses for a portrait in the countryside of Bavaria, Germany. Image by Angelica Ekeke. Germany, 2019.

Israel, a 30-year-old Nigerian refugee poses for a portrait in the countryside of Bavaria, Germany. Image by Angelica Ekeke. Germany, 2019.

An intersection in Beijing. The pollution that shrouds China’s cities kills an estimated 1.1 million people every year. Image by Beth Gardiner. China, 2017.

An intersection in Beijing. The pollution that shrouds China’s cities kills an estimated 1.1 million people every year. Image by Beth Gardiner. China, 2017.

Meegale, 5. Photo courtesy of Tyra Johnson. United States, undated.

Meegale, 5. Photo courtesy of Tyra Johnson. United States, undated.

Tyra Johnson, 30, at her son's preschool graduation last year. Photo courtesy of Tyra Johnson. United States, undated.

Tyra Johnson, 30, at her son's preschool graduation last year. Photo courtesy of Tyra Johnson. United States, undated.

Madison, 4. Photo courtesy of Tyra Johnson. United States, undated.

Madison, 4. Photo courtesy of Tyra Johnson. United States, undated.

Objectives: 

By the end of this lesson, students will be able to... 

  • Evaluate how journalists use descriptive writing to describe places that are under-represented in the media
  • Describe a setting using figurative language
  • Plan and compose a first draft composition
  • Edit and revise a first draft composition

Warm-up:

  1. What are places you have always wanted to see and know more about? Make a list.
  2. What are some of your favorite places that you know very well? Make a list.
  3. Pick one of those places and describe it in three words: _____, ______.____.

Today’s lesson will explore how journalists use observation and writing in news stories to accurately communicate what a place looks like and feels like to people who may never see it. Sometimes journalists describe places when they are telling under-reported stories, which are stories that are important, but don’t always get very much attention. 

Watch the video below to explore examples of these stories, why these stories matter, and how to find them: 

Introducing the Resource: Writing Like a Journalist

Journalist Tristan McConnell wrote a story for Vox about the importance of the endangered Afrormosia tree in the Congo River Basin. In the video below, he identifies two challenges that he faced as a writer when investigating this project.

  • The Congo River Basin is a unique space where many readers have never been and may never go. He had to use language to capture the forest and make readers feel what he felt when he was there.
  • In some cases, a story focuses on a person or community, but the subject of this piece is not human. He wanted to use his writing to compel readers to feel a connection to a tree. 

Watch the above video with Tristan to learn about different techniques he used to address these problems. Take notes as you watch. Answer these questions to guide your notetaking OR answer them after you watch the video.

  1. What steps did Tristan take to accurately describe and characterize the Congo River Basin and the Afrormosia tree?
  2. What steps did he recommend to writers interested in describing their own spaces?
  3. What parts of this video did you find most interesting? Why?

Introducing the Lesson: Crafting Compelling Composition About a Place

 It may seem a lot easier to write a compelling narrative when you’re going somewhere as exotic as the rainforest, but how do you do this with a place that is more familiar like your own neighborhood, your own house, or even your own room? 

You’ll use this lesson outline to craft a creative composition that describes a place that is meaningful to you. Your piece can be as short as one to three paragraphs, or much longer if you feel inspired to keep writing. 

Remember: What is familiar to you is not familiar to others. You can make your own space just as exciting to readers by capturing what is extraordinary about it. 

Practice: Plan Your Writing

In this step you’ll take notes and answer question prompts to prepare a description of a place you choose. You’ll jot your responses down on a piece of paper or type them out if you prefer the computer. Here is a graphic organizer whcih you can use to take you through each step as well if you prefer. 

Step 1: Choose a space to describe

Tristan wrote about the rainforest and the Afromosia tree because he wanted people to care about them. Capturing their beauty and necessity was important to him.

What space is important to you? Is it a park in your neighborhood? A shop that you visit often? A room in your house? Think about what spaces you care about. Choose a space that triggers your emotions. 

Writer’s Tip: What if I can't think of an exciting place to describe?

If you’re not sure right away, put a time on for one minute and make a list of spaces. After the timer goes off, review your list and choose one.Whatever you decide, make sure that you’re writing about a space that is important to you. 

Once you choose a space, finish this sentence: This space is important because…

Step 2:  Observe, take notes, and capture details

Document details about the place by responding to the following:

  • What do you see?
  • What do you hear?
  • What objects are in the room? How would you describe their textures?

Writer's Tip: What should I include in a description?

Go beyond what is universal about your space. If you’re indoors, we know there are probably walls and a roof. List details that are unique: the colors and smell of a scented candle or a meal being cooked, the texture of the walls or a bedspread, the light, the personal items like books, photographs, and posters. The more specific the details you choose, the more revealing they are about the nature of the person who occupies the space. If you are describing your own room, for example, you’ll notice how many elements of your room capture your personality and interests.

If you can see outside from this place, describe what you see. Someone might walk by. How do they walk? Do they have a mask? Do they look anxious? How do you know? Don’t tell me they look anxious, tell me what they did to show you they look anxious.

Writer’s Tip: What do I do if I get stuck?

If you are struggling to list uncommon elements of the space you have chosen, put a timer on for one to two minutes and list ordinary or common details. Once you get that out of your system, start searching for the unique details.

Writer's Tip: How do I see the spaces I know in a new way? 

Remember, Tristan just sat in the forest, listening and watching. Don’t forget the power of simply sitting still. Capturing the essence of a space takes some patience, so allow yourself the opportunity to just sit and let the space speak to you. remember, you’re often moving or in the process of doing something in that space. How often do you just sit and observe? Remember, you’re often moving or in the process of doing something in that space. How often do you just sit and observe?

Step 3: Take inventory of your feelings in the space

When you’re going to a new place, it can be harder to get in touch with what you feel. The advantage that you have in describing a familiar space is that you already have a connection to that place. You already know how the space makes you feel. 

  1. Make a list: Come up with at least 3 adjectives or phrases to describe the way you feel. Does this space make you feel alive? Vibrant? Comfortable? Safe? Suffocated? Connected to others or completely alone?
  2. Reflect on the adjectives you chose. Can you explain why this room makes you feel this way? What objects or memories might affect how you feel in the space? Complete this sentence for each adjective/phrase:

This space makes me feel...because...

Writer’s Challenge: Compose at least three sentences that give the feelings to the space:  For example, if your bedroom makes you feel safe and at peace, the room itself will embody those feelings. The bed “hugs” you when you lay down, the salmon-colored walls trap the sun’s warmth, the carpeted ground cushions the impact of footsteps. By describing the objects in the room as active, you can define the mood or atmosphere of the place you are describing and conveying to your readers.

Step 5: Imagine and describe a journey to the space

Tristan started his article in a city environment before traveling to the rainforest because he knew that most readers would be accustomed to a city. By describing his journey from a familiar place to an unfamiliar place, he was inviting readers to travel from a known world to an unknown world.

Describing the process of a journey draws the reader into an unknown space gradually rather than throwing them into it. It also helps the reader anticipate a destination.

Write a brief introduction to your piece featuring a journey to your space. Push yourself to describe the gradual change, the manner in which you travel from one space to the next. Write one to three paragraphs.

Writer’s Tip: Transitioning from the familiar to the unfamiliar: Take a moment to imagine a journey to the space you are describing. Consider the sharp contrast of a city environment to a rainforest. Is there a space that looks or feels very different from yours? Are you traveling from the frigid, December outdoors to your warm, cozy room? From a sweaty, suffocating locker room to the well-manicured and green soccer field where your coach holds practices?

Activity: Write a First Draft

You already have your introduction if you wrote your journey to your space. Now, finish crafting the first draft of your writing by incorporating all of your notes. This draft should be at least three paragraphs but can be as long as you’d like it to be.

Reflection: Revise, Refine and Rewrite

Once you’ve finished your draft, read it over. Read it out loud. Read it to a friend. As you review your writing, don’t be afraid to make changes. You might alter the order of your details, the language that you use, the grammar that you employ, or even the focus of your writing.

When you are ready to write a final draft, go for it! Post it, share it, and be proud of it.

Extension Activities

Option 1: 

Choose two of the following articles from the list below and write a three to five paragraph expository essay that describes how the journalist employed different writing techniques to capture a place for readers.

Option 2: 

Pick or imagine a place that you don’t know very well. Use the steps outlined in this lesson to write a three paragraph descriptive composition that communicates this place to readers who may never see it. This can be a place that exists or a place that you invent. Include the following in your description:

  • A description of the journey to the place
  • Figurative language that communicates details in the place
  • Figurative language that communicates the feeling of the place
Educator Notes: 

Common Core Standards:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.3

Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.4

Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.11-12.5

Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on addressing what is most significant for a specific purpose and audience.

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